One of my favorite stories when I was very small was “Stone Soup”: a tale where a community is coerced to make a delicious pot of soup by each adding their own ingredients. There are plenty of reasons why this is a great jumping-off point for analogies about writing, but today I think I’d like to talk about the ingredients which are currently simmering in my own imaginary cauldron.
Every story is inspired by an amazing assortment of things: people, places, memories, and other stories. One of my college professors, the amazing Ann Page Stecker, taught me a wonderful term for this: bricolage. (We would call it to each other from across hallways, imitating the old Ricola commercial: “Briiiiii-co-laaaaage!”) When familiar things are mixed together in their own soup, something new, complex, and wonderful emerges. If it’s done properly, some ingredients aren’t even evident at first taste: like zucchini snuck into brownies. The contents of a story soup don’t have to be consciously added, either: it’s the reason why so many authors say that voracious reading is one of the hallmarks of a great author. What we experience comes through in our writing voice: I learned quite early on that my writing tended to sound like whoever I’d been reading, without trying. Now I look to it as a tool: I read a bit of whoever inspires me whenever I’m writing.
For me, the most fun thing about the story soup cauldron is that books aren’t the only fuel. Every now and then, some other sort of media grabs my writer’s brain and won’t let it go. Bioshock Infinite has that hold on me now: a 2013 video game which takes the turn-of-the-century United States and introduces elements of alternate worlds and timelines. There’s a bit of steampunk worked into the world setting, and the gorgeous visuals and styling sucked me in right away … but what is firing my brain is the seamless telling of the plot and the revelation of its twists. (If you would like to play it for yourself and experience it, I strongly advise you not to read anything about the plot, because it’s very easily spoiled.) Every event, every line of dialogue and piece of scenery, quietly advises the player what will eventually happen. It’s done with such care and subtlety that the massive revelations in the last two hours of gameplay still come as a complete gut-punch, and it’s the sort of master storytelling that every author hopes they will be able to pull off. I’m in the middle of a second play-through so that I can deconstruct it with a writer’s eye and tuck its tools into my kit.
The other large ingredient simmering in my soup is Disney’s new remake of Beauty and the Beast. Those who personally know me understand that the original is one of my favorites, and Belle has a special place in my heart. I went into a viewing as a skeptic, not sure that I’d care for it at all. Some elements didn’t pass my personal litmus test, but they are minimal in comparison to the wallop the story now packs. Every single character has been filled out with new depth, and none of it feels stilted or forced: the Beast’s history fits him like a glove, the deeper current of Gaston’s ego is as natural as breathing, and the story of Belle’s mother is heartbreaking. The new movie shows how adding to a beloved story can enrich it and make it thicker, like flour or cornstarch in a broth. This technique came in a very timely manner, since I’m gearing up to flesh out the history of two Aviario characters in a pair of novellas.
Since Camp NaNoWriMo fires up in two short weeks, I’ve got to bring my camp stove with me, and I’ve got a few great ingredients to cook over the fire. Are any of you participating in Camp? Look me up under user name “chartharsis”: I’d love to chat with you! If you’re not a Camper, I’d still be curious to hear what you put in your own story soup. Leave me a comment below: hearing from my readers makes my day!
Have a great week, and I’ll see you back here next Wednesday!
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